A Piece of the Action
No one was asking the Minnesota Department of Tourism to create an ad campaign around the idea of the Grab-Ass State. But that's what observers might have gathered when Gov. Tim Pawlenty effectively rejected the idea of backing a movie shoot that would lionize 15 female workers from Eveleth who filed the nation's first class-action sexual-harassment suit.
It's always a curious decision when a politician passes up an opportunity to bring jobs and money from out of state--in this case, Hollywood, the land of the Gropenführer, Arnold Schwarzenegger. The move is even odder this time because--in a fact unmentioned during the debate--the state has already spent public money on a film about sexual harassment in Minnesota's mining industry.
Though the harassment at Eveleth Mines started in the late 1970s and the lawsuit itself took 14 years to resolve, it's apparently still a sore subject on the Iron Range. Having signed actor Charlize Theron to the project, Warner Bros. lobbied for a 10 percent rebate (up to $350,000) on the $3 to $5 million that the studio would likely spend shooting Class Action in northern Minnesota.
The Iron Range Resources Council, the area's economic development agency, decisively backed incentives for the feel-good film in a vote last month. Yet Commissioner Sandy Layman declined to bring the proposal to Pawlenty, who stood by her refusal. While Layman was meticulously vague when contacted by City Pages, her squeamishness about the subject peeked through in an earlier interview.
"When this is shown in theaters, I will feel better knowing our agency didn't have any money in this movie," Layman told the Duluth News Tribune. "This is not an example of what we should be putting our public tax dollars into."
Minnesota Film and TV Board Executive Director Craig Rice, who has watched the movie industry wither in the state, questions Layman's motivations. "This is really--from the governor and the senator's side--more censorship than economics," Rice says.
Layman retorts to City Pages that the idea of censorship here is "silly." The IRR, she asserts, wants to support the project "just short of having direct financial involvement."
Without the state incentives, Warner Bros. plans to start their spring shoot in a somewhat unlikely Minnesota stand-in--sunny New Mexico. The so-called "Land of Enchantment" offers filmmakers a 15 percent tax credit and up to $7 million in no-interest loans. (Minnesota eliminated its similar "snowbate" program last year.) In other words, moviegoers will still see a movie about sexual harassment on the Iron Range--but state businesses won't have to endure the shame of having made money off it.
Except, it turns out, they already have. In 1982, independent filmmaker John Hanson received an estimated $50,000 loan from the IRR to finance Wildrose, the story of a woman working in the Eveleth mines who is sexually harassed and eventually laid off. "At the time, everyone was out of work," Hanson recalls, speaking from his Northern Pictures office in Bayport, Minnesota. "And a movie coming in--even a small movie like ours--there was a lot of really positive support for our production." Hanson seems confident that the IRR funding went to good use, as well. "I think they got their money's worth," he says.
While it may be difficult to frame Time-Warner, one of the nation's media behemoths, as the underdog in this imbroglio, Minnesota's battered local film industry is now attempting to create its own unlikely happy ending. Riki McManus, who runs the Upper Minnesota Film Office in Duluth, is joining with Rice to set up a point-of-sale discount with local retailers that would keep the shoot in Minnesota.
"Think of this as a grassroots action," McManus says. "The community wants to make this happen; the state doesn't want this to happen." McManus, Rice, and company are advocating that retailers give the movie studio a 15 percent discount on local purchases, potentially saving the company $750,000. That's more than twice the $350,000 it would cost the state to attract the business.
This is surely a picture that Pawlenty would pay to see: a scrappy success story about the economic savings to be found through the private sector.
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